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Massachusetts marijuana companies, workers, patients bracing for worst as coronavirus disruptions loom

Pandemic shutters recreational sales at NETA Brookline

Pure Oasis employee Jabreel Wingard, right, checked a customer's ID, while other shoppers lined up a safe distance apart to avoid spreading coronavirus, on Tuesday.
Pure Oasis employee Jabreel Wingard, right, checked a customer's ID, while other shoppers lined up a safe distance apart to avoid spreading coronavirus, on Tuesday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Massachusetts marijuana sector is bracing for massive disruptions, with consumers and patients stockpiling products and businesses scaling back operations as the coronavirus pandemic cripples the state’s economy.

New England Treatment Access in Brookline, one of the country’s busiest cannabis stores, suspended recreational sales Monday. The company said the move was necessary to keep lines of customers from congregating, which would violate pleas by public health authorities to practice “social distancing" and avoid large groups. (Registered medical marijuana patients will still be able to patronize the dispensary, but must reserve products online in advance.)

“This is really about preserving access while maintaining safety,” NETA president Amanda Rositano said, adding that the firm is bracing for a major hit to revenues. “The number of customers and patients we’re able to see has been reduced significantly, and that hurts business. We’re dramatically impacted by this.”

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For now, most other Massachusetts cannabis retailers are continuing to offer recreational sales while taking a variety of precautions.

At Pure Oasis in Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood, which opened just last week, managers have placed large "X" marks on the floor of a waiting area to keep customers six feet apart from one another, as health officials have recommended. Other marijuana stores now require all orders to be placed online ahead of time, to speed transactions and minimize interactions, and have issued gloves to cashiers.

Pure Oasis cofounder Kobie Evans said his shop has been deluged with calls from customers trying to stockpile cannabis flowers, edibles, and other products in anticipation of inventory shortages, store closures, or government edicts to stay at home for days or weeks.

For now, he’s keeping Pure Oasis open with a “skeleton crew" of 10 to 12 employees, including security workers to keep customers away from one another, while bracing for a possible order to shut down entirely.

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“People have been watching the news and they’re overcome with anxiety and the doom and gloom and uncertainty of it all — they want to make sure they have access to products that help them deal with those anxieties,” Evans said. “We want to be there to help those people and fulfill that need they’ve expressed, but at the same time, we want to keep everyone healthy and safe.”

Medical marijuana patients are even more nervous. Many rely on cannabis to treat serious illnesses, from seizure disorders to depression to chronic pain, and fret that a disruption to their supply of the drug could bring serious health consequences — or force them to turn to pharmaceutical alternatives that are addictive or have unpleasant side effects.

Numerous patients and recreational marijuana customers interviewed by the Globe said that in light of the pandemic, they were growing or stockpiling cannabis, often from cheaper informal sources. (Several licensed marijuana stores also said the average value of each sale was spiking as consumers bought more products at once than usual; purchase limits varied by store.)

Some patients with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. To help them and other homebound or low-income patients, advocates are coordinating on Facebook and other social networks to form ad hoc delivery networks offering free home-grown marijuana to patients, or to make dispensary runs on their behalf. They are also lobbying the state to deem licensed medical marijuana businesses “essential” in the event of a broader shutdown of businesses, as San Francisco officials have, allowing them to remain in operation.

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The virus “is going to have a huge impact, and unfortunately medical marijuana patients will suffer until all this goes away,” said Joanna Varner, a 37-year-old Weymouth cannabis advocate and patient who uses the drug to treat pain and PTSD. “But the community is actually coming together more in these hard times. Everybody is sharing right now.”

Varner added that smoking sessions and other cannabis community gatherings are out of the question amid the pandemic.

“Now it’s more like, ‘Come by and I’ll leave something on the porch for you.’ ”

Doctors who issue medical marijuana recommendations to patients echoed the plea by advocates to keep licensed medical dispensaries open.

“I’m in favor of the state closing as many businesses as possible as early as possible, but we need to think very carefully about the fact that tens of thousands of people in Massachusetts truly depend on cannabis as a medicine," said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School instructor who also issues cannabis recommendations. “It’s going to be a disaster if they get cut off.”

Grinspoon called on the Cannabis Control Commission to temporarily allow doctors to issue and renew recommendations over online video systems instead of requiring in-person appointments, saying most such interactions are routine.

The commission, whose staff is mostly working from home, said its regulations allow doctors to renew existing medical marijuana certifications over the phone or video, as long as they have seen the patient in person within the past year. It is also encouraging operators to expand their medical marijuana delivery operations. (Recreational delivery licenses have yet to be issued.)

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So far, cannabis industry leaders said, there haven’t been widespread disruptions to growing and manufacturing operations. But that could change as the virus spreads; workers could start falling ill, and there are jitters over increases in the price of isopropyl alcohol, which is used in some THC extraction processes but also to make sanitizing products.

One company, CommCan, said it has suspended wholesale operations from its Medway growing and processing facility in order to meet surging demand at its Millis marijuana store, and to avoid unwittingly spreading the virus.

CommCan chief executive Marc Rosenfeld said that if the company is forced to reduce hours for retail workers, those employees could be reassigned to the growing and manufacturing operation. Workers who miss time because of the virus won’t lose their jobs, he vowed.

Other firms, including NETA and Sira Naturals, have also expanded their sick time policies to encourage ill workers to stay home.

But no company can guarantee hourly employees won’t soon lose some or all of their scheduled shifts, leaving some destitute. And union leaders warned that because marijuana is still illegal under US law, the state’s thousands of cannabis workers could be ineligible for any forthcoming federal financial assistance.

“I’m worried about cannabis workers being left behind by any federal response,” said Jim Carvalho, the political director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445, which is organizing Massachusetts cannabis employees. “The states have to step up and make sure that they have access to the same protections other workers would have."

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Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.